The papal splendours of Avignon
On a cool and crisp Avignon morning in April, pigeons coo on the cobbled stones of old squares and young cafe workers sleepwalk into the day. Venerated buildings wake to another day of school excursions, snap-happy tourists and earnest pilgrims.
The Vatican may be the spiritual home of the world’s Catholics, but for a time in the 14th century Avignon was the seat of papal power and influence.
As French and Italian cardinals and kings and queens and go-between courtiers made deals in corridors and antechambers, peasants earned little more than their daily bread.
Today, a visit to the Palais de Papes lets visitors take a peek into this intriguing episode of papal history. Between 1309 and 1414, seven French popes and two antipopes (so named because another pope resided concurrently in Rome) lived in bejewelled and brocaded splendour in the fortified medieval city.
During the depredations of the French Revolution, the palace interior was destroyed, frescoes vandalised, antiquities sold as scrap and the building used as a barracks.
The palace is stone cold, the heavy bricks of its history full of angels and demons, cardinals and courtiers, saints and sinners. In fact, the palace is really two palaces of distinct architectural style built over 30 years. The old palace reflects Benedictine monasticism in its Romanesque simplicity while the new palace, with its more Gothic orientation, oozes embellishment.
I see the rooms where the cardinals resided with their retinue of secretaries and domestics. I visit the kitchen with its odd ventilation, a huge upside-down stone funnel blackened with baking for the groaning tables of ecclesial excess.
Beautiful frescoes and tapestries adorn the walls. The themes are mainly religious, except for The Deer Room, which annunciates the joys of hunting with dogs, deer and ferrets abounding, intimating that medieval leisure pursuits were not always elegant and chivalrous. Oddly, in the painted piscarium (an artificial lake filled with fish to be served up at a banquet) there appears to be a dolphin. In 1969, an unnamed conservator decided to leave his I-was-here mark, a tiny artistic anachronism to amuse future visitors. On one wall, I spy a small swan, its long-necked grace unruffled by the bestiary around it.
The pope’s bedchamber is large and cold. It has the most glorious deep blue walls upon which golden grapevines and curlicues are painted and in which nests the occasional bird and the odd squirrel clambers.
I am struck by the palace’s pressing sense of history, its grandeur and the prospect of ghosts stalking the clammy corridors.
I meander along backstreets of Avignon and love coming across strange statuary or being confronted by the gnarled grandeur of dilapidation. I look up at the plasterwork on closed churches and see cherubs and vines and hooded penitents and am reminded of arcane rites and rituals and secret heretical sects.
On the waters outside the city’s old ramparts, barges ply their trade as they have done since well before Roman times. The sun sparkles on the gilded cathedral statue of Notre-Dame des Doms as she gazes over the town below.
It’s another glorious spring day in Avignon, where the past taps you gently on the shoulder, dead popes slumber in eternal rest and that old man river, the Rhone, just keeps rolling along.
Avignon’s Palais de Papes, seat of papal power in the 14th century